Work in(g on) Progress

When I started this blog chronicling my survival as a mother postpartum, I sought out other blogs with a similar focus.  My research took me all the way to South Africa.  I found Lebogang and her blog, For His Love.  A woman living a totally different life in a totally different part of the world felt the exact same way as me.  I was so glad to read my story on her pages with a different set of characters and timeline, especially since she was further along in her story, which meant I, too, would make it.  After all, that’s what the badge in the bottom right hand corner of her page said:

I survived postpartum depression.  You can too.

This image was like a magic talisman to me.  I clicked on it, half-expecting, I think, the spontaneous appearance of the how-to handbook for solving all my problems.  This mythical handbook did not appear – but Postpartum Progress did, which is, really, the next best thing.

Postpartum Progress is the brainchild of Katherine Stone.  She has built and branded a maternal mental health empire.  It started, as she says, with the blog, then a conference, and is now building its nonprofit status.  But while it started with Stone and her own struggle with postpartum OCD, its success is in the amazing community she’s created for women who all-too-often feel completely alone.

Simply their social media feed is enough to inspire hope, with affirmations, informational tidbits, and links to in-depth articles.  The blog and website offer a wealth of information and resources, that would help any woman while away the wee hours of the panicked postpartum morning before the doctor’s office opens.  And that may be precisely the point that Postpartum Progress exists.  To offer a voice and ear 24/7 to a struggling population whose problems do not adhere to office hours and are not as cut and dry as a short symptom list.

A disclaimer on all their pages states that the information and advice is not a substitute for professional care and consultation.  However, it is a place to start the journey and a companion throughout it.  It offers a place for women who have no vocal allies in their everyday lives, due to stigma, to find friends and examples of success despite struggle.

It is organizations like Postpartum Progress that give me hope for the empowerment, validation, and vindication of all women suffering from perinatal mood disorders.  Even ones like me, who are post postpartum.

IsurvivedPPD1

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A Common Language

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure that available mental health resources get into the hands of the women who need them. When and where resources are available, there seems to be a gap between the offering and the accessing. As always, I think back to when I first slid on the shoes of the women now making the postpartum trek.

Women of all socioeconomic, racial, and educational backgrounds share one extremely daunting obstacle when in need of such help: they must articulate their exact problem in order to get the help they need.

In a complex web of medical jargon, insurance restrictions and loopholes, and a frustratingly-absent physical presentation of symptoms (for the most part), it falls upon the sufferer to demand treatment for the condition that, no doubt, impairs the very confidence, decision-making skill set, and strength it takes to do so.

It’s an ironic catch-22. The doctor has the tools to ‘fix’ you, but you must lead her to the workshop. The doctor is the artist, but cannot pick up the paintbrush unless you led her to the canvas. The horse must determine the source of water before the doctor can lead it there.

There is no solution unless the patient gives the doctor information to determine the problem.

When I hinted that I felt like running away a few months postpartum, my midwife recommended I talk to a LISCW. This therapist helped me chip away at the enigma that dragged me down, but it was I who eventually had to request medication from my physician. When that dull cloud still hovered, I made the final call to increase dosage. More recently when I intimated to her that I still felt low sometimes, I apparently wasn’t descriptive enough because I was told the meds shouldn’t make me feel flat; there should be ups and downs.

How well my mental health situation is addressed directly correlates to how accurate I am in describing it. How empowering and crippling at the same time. If I do not share every pertinent detail in clearly descriptive language, I will not feel better. I will not get the meds, therapy, tests, information, etc. that I need to make anything resembling a full recovery.

Regardless of my level of medical literacy, the debilitating effects of depression and anxiety can keep me from adequately representing my plight. Regardless of the quality of care available to me, its benefits will not be afforded to me if I do not say just how much I need it. Nothing will be given to me unless I ask.

How do we on the receiving end of such conversations draw the stories out of the women who need help? How do we teach/speak the language to give them a voice? How do we release the language bubbling beneath their skin? In that wordless abyss is the bridge between therapeutic, wholistic maternal care and the women who need it.

word bubbles

 

What Postpartum Depression Recovery DOES NOT Look Like

Read this article, peeps.  Truth.  Simple, yet sage advice.  Your rational side may know it all already, but that stubborn irrational side of you needs to hear it again.  Believe me, I’ve been there and felt all these – and so has Katherine Stone, the author.

 

What Postpartum Depression Recovery DOES NOT Look Like.

Get well card with fresh chamomile flowers on blue background

It Just Makes Me Sad

News broke late last week that a California mother had taken the lives of her three children.  Conduct a man-on-the-street interview and you’d likely hear outrage, vile epithets directed at the monster who would kill her own offspring.  My own husband brought it up to me in a pained tone of voice.  He was disgusted.  It IS disgusting when such a thing happens.

But I’m not angry at her.

Horrible events like this make me sad.

Sad that three lives on the cusp were snuffed out.  Sad that poor defenseless, innocent babes were terminated.  Sad that the father had to watch his bloodied babies be carried from his home; that his partner in life, in giving life, was the one responsible.

Sad that no one connected to this woman perceived any threat of dangerous behavior. Sad that perhaps she felt she couldn’t express such feelings before it was too late for fear of judgment, backlash.  Sad that she didn’t know how to get help.  Or perhaps didn’t have such resources available.

Sad that things like this continue to happen needlessly.

We live in a society with a different-hued ribbon for everything – and things like this still happen.

And woman like this are still labelled as crazy.  I found ONE account that handled this story sensitively.  (Read here)

In the anger and outrage that follow such an event, it’s easy to point fingers.  Why was she left alone with the children?  Why didn’t anyone ensure she got treatment? Thankfully, I never experienced postpartum psychosis (nor has it been substantiated that this woman did); even still, I hid my negative feelings for fear of judgement as a bad mother.  I never asked for help because my struggles were so far out of the realm of a competent mother.  Would I have been more likely, then, to admit to homicidal thoughts toward my children?  Not something someone who loves and cares for their children – which all postpartum mothers do on some level – would readily admit.  Therefore, there may not have been warning signs of this impending tragedy.  Many postpartum mothers are uncannily adept at masking the turmoil inside.

So here’s the lowdown:

  • For all its awareness, we still live in a society where women are compelled to hide their unhealthy mental symptoms.
  • For all the coverage of tragedies such as these, a lot of people still cannot recognize or suss out the warning signs and symptoms of the mentally ill to prevent future scenarios.
  • For all the resources available, the paths to these therapeutic and rehabilitative programs are still unclear and/or blocked.
  • For a species that values nurturing, we are quick to throw a troubled and needy person under the bus.

There is work to be done, people.  It is sad that we cannot look each other in the eye and see the need in that person.  It is sad that we look away for fear that the beast inside us will be awakened by the raw reminder in front of us.  It is sad that, instead, we cannot look and see a solution, a way to lift up the depressed and rise together.

kids

Playing the Odds

 

We always hope that our child will get the best characteristics from that special person we partnered with and ourselves. A winning combination. We hope that the less desirable pieces of ourselves will be filtered out in the next generation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Our second daughter was an easy baby. She ate well. She slept well once she discovered her thumb. She rolled with the punches of a dual-sibling household. Her laugh came easily as did her socialization. We labeled her gregarious and thought for sure she’d be comfortable in any social situation as she grew.

Partway through her year of preschool, she began complaining about going. No one likes me. No one plays with me. Kindergarten followed with more of the same, with daily fights of shoe, sock, and shirt selection – one of which ruffled me so much I slid into a tree one snowy morning. This year, it intensified, with afternoons added to the agenda. Denial of a specific snack or a disagreement with one of her sisters would send her reeling. Over-the-top anger. Violent outbursts. Negative self-narrative.

My husband and I tried extra cuddles and attention, positive reinforcement, avoided giving such outbursts attention . . . it only seemed to escalate. It was not a fun time, to say the least. What finally pierced my heart was when she began with self-harming statements.

I’m just going to throw myself out the window and break my head.

It would be better if I just died.

How would you feel then?

I doubted whether my first grader had horribly morbid intentions. I sensed it was a more dramatic way to express inexpressible incredibly pissed-off feelings (which was later confirmed by the school psychologist) and that she didn’t fully understand the gravity of her declarations. BUT – and a big one – I’ve read and heard enough about mental illness to know you never take such statements lightly. And I’m a former English/Language Arts teacher, used to evaluating journals and writing pieces where many such revelations come out in school. Teachers and school personnel have strict protocols to follow surrounding such language – even if it’s erring on the side of caution.

What scared me most about these statements was that they reminded me so very much of my own running narrative born of postpartum depression: I hate my life. Just kill me now.

Had my child inherited the very worst part of me, the part from which I truly hoped she and her sisters would be free? In tense conversations after the children went to bed and my husband and I tried to find a solution to this seemingly impossible one, I said, You know why I’m paranoid, right? He did. Though he’s never seen me as such, he knows I think of myself as broken, flawed, and that my worst fear is that it affects the children. What if she’s got what I have? This fear hadn’t fully formed itself in my soul until those words issued from her mouth, but then it blossomed exponentially. We agreed to make an appointment with the school psychologist.

Fortuitously, the school psychologist’s curriculum already brought her into the first grade classroom discussing identification and expression of feelings. Ironic. Perhaps my anxious little bean hadn’t progressed far enough into the curriculum, but my concerns meshed nicely with the goals of the program. The school psychologist helped us extend and reinforce what they’d been discussing in the classroom in our home.

It wasn’t an instant fix. Though it started with a great amount of enthusiasm, a week into our initiatives had my daughter ripping up the yellow diamond of construction paper listing her triggers (you know, the warning zone meant to make her more aware of them in order to cut them off at the pass). In her calm moments, she could tell you exactly what bothered her. When she was seeing red, there was no talking her down until she’d run herself out. Closer to the end of the year now, I hear her using more of the language from the school program on her own. It makes me happy to see her acknowledging ‘rock brain’ moments and telling said rock to get lost.

And that, I think, is the memory and lesson I choose to take away from this year. For all the machinations I took this year, in the end, it was she who enacted the change. She has the power to determine her own destiny. She is not a mini-me, though she looks an awful lot like I did as a child. She isn’t my clone, complete with my anxious tendencies. After all, she inherited her father’s temper, too. 😉 She is a unique individual who will create her own unique solutions for any problem she encounters.

Being aware of how my genetic make-up may influence the presentation of her behaviors is good to keep in the back of my mind, but it shouldn’t be in the forefront.  Using what I learned in my struggles to create a support system for her only makes sense and compassionate parenting, but it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She is a certain percentage of me, a certain percentage of her father, but she’s 100% herself.

 

a onesie gifted to us by a dear friend

a onesie gifted to us by a dear friend


 

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Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry

 

The book begins like any other for children. A breakfast scene, a mother making pancakes for her daughter in a sun-filled kitchen. She helps her dress and tells her how “beautastic” she looks before sending her off to school with “a kiss and big smile.” But here, the mood shifts. Annie, the daughter, hopes that Mommy “is still smiling when [she] comes home” because “sometimes my mommy doesn’t smile at all.”

angryAnd it is no mistake that the tone and plot of the book changes with a shift in mood. Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell is the story of a child living with a mother suffering from bipolar disorder.

Indeed, when Annie returns home from school that afternoon, it is not smiling Mommy that greets her. Her mother yells at her to stop making noise, to get in the house, to ignore the neighbor’s inquires about her school day. Then she turns on the neighbor, accusing him of always spying on her.

And apparently this isn’t the first time, for once Annie gets inside, she follows a well-scripted plan. She calls her grandmother. “Mommy is yelling again,” she says. After her grandmother assures her she’s done nothing wrong, she tells her to go to the neighbor’s house until she comes to get her if she feels scared. When Annie tells her she’s not scared talking to her, she is to get her “secret snack without bothering Mommy.” But most importantly, to “think happy thoughts.”

The next day dawns much differently than the first. The rain pours down rather than sun through the windows. Annie is left to fend for herself, eating cold cereal rather than hot pancakes. But her friends help her brush out the knots she missed in her hair. They joke and laugh on their walk to school despite the raindrops.

True to her grandmother’s directive, Annie does manage to think happy thoughts. She says, “Sometimes my mommy has dark clouds inside her. I can’t stop the rain from falling, but I can find sunshine in my mind.”

How do we, as parents, ensure our child finds the sunshine in her mind – even when we simply cannot? Whether it’s from bipolar or another mental illness, how do we shield our children from the worst of the disease without also blocking out our love for them? Annie’s grandmother emphasizes that her “mother loves you even when she’s yelling.” She even goes so far as to say, “It’s okay for you to be angry. I know you love her too.” How do we teach this give and take and encourage our child’s healthy feelings in response to our unhealthy ones?

An author’s note before the story, which also provides important information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, states that “the ‘village’ that supports the children of the mentally ill – the grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors – can help foster within these fragile children a sense of security and hope that life can get better, and encourage self-esteem in the face of extremely trying situations.”

Is that how we parents support our children? By farming it out to the surrounding village when we can’t do it?

This book is directed toward the children of parents with mental illness. I’m looking at it through the lens of guilt and worry that comes from being a parent with mental illness. Perhaps I should take Grandma’s advice: have a healthy snack, look to the support of neighbors, and think happy thoughts. I feel terrible that my conditions keep me from being ‘the end all and be all’ for my children. But maybe I never was supposed to be anyway. Maybe it really does take a village.

At the very least, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry takes on the task of telling the story of one special little girl’s resilience in the face of great difficulty. And that’s a story a lot of kids out there really need to hear.

 

A Child Registers Who’s Raising Him

 

“But a child is a sensitive instrument. You can hide the factual truth from a child, but you can’t blanket influence. Your agitation will out, and over time it will mold your child’s temperament as surely as water wears at rock. It was not until I was nearly twenty, deep into my own way with anxiety, that my mother spoke to me explicitly about her anxiety and the grief it caused her. But by that time she essentially talking to herself. I’d become her. It wasn’t merely genetics. It was the million little signals: the jolting movements, the curious fears, the subtle avoidances, the panic behind the eyes, the terror behind the hugs, the tremor in the caresses. It was the monkey. A child registers who’s raising him.”

– from Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith

 

It’s the Depression Talking

 

After writing yesterday about how so much of my writing makes it sound as if I hate my role as mother, I got to thinking.

 

I don’t hate being a mother.

I don’t hate my children.

I don’t hate my life.

 

It’s the depression talking.

 

Aside from shoving cotton into the mouth of the Debbie Downer who has taken up residence somewhere in my grey matter, I wouldn’t change anything about my life. I wouldn’t make different decisions. I wouldn’t rearrange the pieces.

Though far from perfect, this is pretty much the life I always wanted to live.

And I’ve known that. For quite some time. I know I have multitudes of blessings for which to be thankful, highest on the list those three little beauties. Only now have I figured out why I couldn’t make the leap to gratitude, to joy.

Goddamn depression.

I’m well acquainted with the irrational/illogical movements of anxiety vs. the rational/logical progressions of what​? Someone in her right mind? I can access that part of my mind. It’s functioning quite well, in fact. It just never wins. That raw part of me, that most primal adrenaline-sucking beast always wins. It rules me with an iron fist to the already queasy gut.

The sun is always shining in my part of the world. I’m just below that low-hanging, suffocating layer of clouds beneath it. I haven’t figured out how to fly up and out of it.

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from howstuffworks.com

 

Debbie Downer

 

So I’m kind of selfish. I struggle with depression (read: not always a bag of laughs). I sometimes get lost in the vortex of my anxious thoughts.

Perfect candidate for motherhood, right?

When one writes a mental health blog while suffering from said mental illness and in the midst of mothering, it’s hard to write a post that doesn’t make it sound like you hate your job and/or children.

For the record, I don’t.

I love my children.

My mother told me that I must be doing something right because they [the children] adore me. I replied, Well, they won’t have an overinflated sense of ego, that’s for sure.

How much do we put away? How much rubs off on them? How much can you vent/piss/moan/complain on posts and not have people call family services, Samaritan lifelines, EMTs, etc.?

I don’t know how much this blog is my release valve or an incubator for my negative thoughts. Scratch that. They’re there anyway. It’s like denying the existence of the devil.

I wonder how much I look like an agitated, anxious, depressed mother on the outside. Or if no one knows. No one can see. I wonder how many of us are walking around wearing a camouflage coat. It may the woman sitting right next to you. It may be the face staring back at you from the mirror.

Is it possible to separate our maladies from the little being that grew inside us? Will they be able to thrive outside that shadow?

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Return to Zero

Stigma.  Silence.  Simply impossible to say the right thing.

All of these surround the topic of neonatal death, miscarriage, and stillbirth.

Tonight, a film determines to shatter all that.

Return to Zero tells the story of a couple expecting their first child, whom they are devastated to discover has died before he could even be born.  It is the first feature film to tackle the uncomfortable and uncovered story of this type of tragedy.

Perhaps no one wants to watch a film with such a difficult plot, but certainly no parent wants to find themselves playing the starring role.  Just as we all find comfort and empowerment in reading our story on the page, finding our face on the screen, this film should prove powerful – and hopefully therapeutic – for parents who have been silenced by the horrific events of stillbirth.

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